Heat Waves Deserve Disaster Relief from FEMA, Petition Argues

Estimated read time 14 min read

Heat Waves Deserve Disaster Relief from FEMA, Petition Argues

Places beset by heat waves should receive FEMA disaster funds just as those hit by hurricanes or flooding do, labor unions, green groups and public health advocates argue in a new petition

Workers harvest cantaloupe on a farm during a drought in Firebaugh, California, U.S., on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Battered by drought and heat waves that are straining the power grid, the Golden State is asking residents to make do with less water and electricity, just when they really want to use both.

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

CLIMATEWIRE | Labor unions, green groups and public health advocates pressed the Biden administration on Monday to open up billions of dollars in federal aid to areas smothered by heat waves or wildfire smoke.

A 77-page legal petition filed by the coalition urged the Federal Emergency Management Agency to add heat waves and wildfire smoke to the list of disasters that can trigger FEMA aid to states and households.

“FEMA needs to evolve to deal with these climate-fueled events,” said Jean Su, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is leading the petition.


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The petition comes as a major heat dome is forecast to blanket the eastern half of the United States — from eastern Texas to northern Maine — and as the Biden administration faces pressure to deal with severe heat waves caused in part by climate change.

President Joe Biden has created federal climate grants and improved warnings about extreme heat. But Biden, like his predecessors, has declined to make FEMA disaster aid available during heat waves.

“This is a question of political will,” Su said. More than 30 groups signed the petition, including the Sunrise Movement, the Arizona Public Health Association and the Service Employees International Union. Su said some states would file letters of support “about how under-resourced they are to deal with these events.”

The petition asks FEMA to add “extreme heat” and “wildfire smoke” to the 16 types of events that agency regulations say can trigger disaster aid. The events include storms, floods and tornadoes as well as drought, volcanic eruptions and “any fire.”

The list is not proscriptive. Presidents, who decide which events qualify for FEMA aid, have approved many events that aren’t listed in FEMA regulations or federal law including building collapses, pandemics and a presidential inauguration.

But presidents have declined the handful of requests from governors for FEMA help with a heat wave. Biden for example rejected a FEMA aid request by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) for a 2022 heat dome.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told a congressional committee in September that the agency is not precluded from providing disaster aid for extreme heat and that federal law “does not need to be amended to include extreme heat.”

FEMA spokesperson Jaclyn Rothenberg echoed the sentiment Monday in response to the petition.

“There is nothing specific in the Stafford Act that precludes a declaration for extreme heat,” Rothenberg said in an email, referring to the 1988 law that governs FEMA.

Federal law says that for an event to qualify as a “major disaster,” it must be “beyond the capabilities” of state and local governments to address. For an event to qualify as an “emergency,” the president must decide that federal help “is needed” to save lives and protect property and public health.

Major disasters provide far more federal aid than emergencies.

Su of the Center for Biological Diversity acknowledged the flexibility and said one problem is that FEMA calculates the cost of an event based on only property damage without considering deaths and health costs.

“FEMA is not used to dealing with anything but property damage,” Su said.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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